Documenting a Collection

When most people purchase works of art they simply bring them home, install them and enjoy living with them. When collections grow or tastes change an inevitable editing process occurs and some works wind up in storage or under beds and in closets. Most of us never take the next step to organize our art records, maintain accurate count of what we have and where it is located, photograph and document the works, gather information on purchase price and to regularly update our insurance policies to reflect the items we collect and amass in our lives. The larger a collection becomes the more unwieldy it becomes to start to organize and document the works.

Why do you need to catalog your art collection? There are some very good (and often overlooked) reasons to documents your collections. First, values of artwork change over time and in order to maintain the proper level of insurance coverage for a collection (even if it is for just a few pieces of art) it is important to have current appraisals or at least a current estimate of the proper level of insurance coverage. For purposes of estate planning, as well, a current inventory of your art collections can be invaluable. Often people do not realize what they have and what and how they wish to distribute it until they have an itemized list in front of them. There are often taxation issues that your estate planner may wish to consider once he or she has the benefit of a collection inventory.

How do you go about cataloging an art collection? Your goal should be to have a well-organized, systematic listing of the works. You want something that you can add to over time as you acquire new works of art and something which you can easily reference when you need a piece of information. For most people that means a physical hard copy of the documentation as well as an electronic version(s). You will need to keep multiple copies of the inventory and deposit them in various places for safe keeping such as on multiple computers and back-up disks, in a safe deposit box or vault, with your attorney, and/or in your home as well as your office. However you choose to organize the inventory you should be sure that it is complete and user-friendly.

For some people the task of organizing their entire art collection is daunting, and they wish to hire a professional appraisal firm, cataloger or consultant to document their art collection. Others prefer to organize their own materials and actually enjoy the process of detailing their artwork and simply call an appraiser on specific issues. Regardless of the approach you take you will need to gather the following information in order to accurately catalog and document your collection:

  • good quality images of the pieces showing the front and back, top and bottom (where appropriate), details and images of the entire work;
  • physical details of each work such as dimensions
  • bills of sale or invoices from your initial purchase
  • any subsequent appraisal for each piece
  • copies of articles or excerpts from any books, magazines or essays in which the work of art has appeared
  • information about where and when the artwork has been exhibited or on loan to a museum
  • condition reports or restoration/conservation documentation